Pubs, flats, supermarkets: Britain's churches reborn

Pubs, flats, supermarkets: Britain's churches reborn

LONDON - At one church, the only thing being worshipped is beer - at another, gleaming cars are on sale. Increasingly, it seems, a different kind of conversion is taking place at some of Britain's churches.

Thanks to a steady decline in religion and the high costs of maintaining these historic buildings, a rising number of churches are being given new lives that may have horrified their founders.

Behind the imposing red-brick facade of one Presbyterian church in north London's upmarket Muswell Hill district, throbbing pop music and barrels of Guinness are the first clues that there's a new congregation.

The soaring Gothic arches remain but instead of an altar there's a huge bar, while tables, stools and slot-machines stand in place of the pews. Built in 1902, the church's beautiful exterior remains unchanged. Inside, it's an Irish pub.

"If it was a church, there would be only two or three people here - but on Fridays and Saturdays, it's packed," said John Earl, a construction worker, as he nursed a pint.

"It is weird," he admitted. "I feel I kind of have to respect it. I don't mind being drunk here, but I don't want people carving the pillars." At another table, 33-year-old Yamini pronounced the pub "beautiful".

"It has a different look from the other pubs," she said as she sipped red wine with a friend. "And it's being used instead of being abandoned."

Religious worship has been declining in Britain for years, and church authorities are increasingly forced to rethink the management of their huge - and very expensive - estates.

Policy varies between denominations. The dominant Church of England has strict rules on conversions meaning a building can only be sold if a committee approves its future use, after a lengthy process.

"Churches can't be used for sex shops, gambling premises and things like that," explained Jeremy Tipping, manager of the Church of England's Closed Churches Team.

But a wide range of other church occupants have been given the nod - a climbing centre in the city of Manchester; a circus school in Bristol, where trapezes hang from the rafters; a supermarket, a library, a Sikh temple.

"A church always looks like a church, no matter what it's used for," Tipping told AFP.

"When it has a tower and a spire and arched windows, the association will always be with the Church of England - so they are very, very sensitive that any future use must be one which is appropriate."

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